SPRINGFIELD, ILL. -- Here in Mr. Lincoln's hometown, the Ken Burns-PBS series of programs on the Civil War this past week had a special impact. But the ratings for public television's ambitious historical saga were high everywhere.
Beyond the artistic merit, for which it has been justly praised, the 11-hour epic brought a message about the cost of war that could not be more timely, as the United States approaches a moment of decision in the Persian Gulf.
That was not the only important message this extraordinary blending of photography and writing, of voices and music, conveyed to the millions who saw it. It was equally significant to remind a mass audience in a nation where both whites and blacks are increasingly prone to blame their problems on the unfair demands of the other race that more American lives were lost to free the slaves than in any other war. And that blacks and whites together paid the price for that liberation.
There was another lesson, too -- a lesson of survival. This nation has faced far worse crises than the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester, which seemed to so preoccupy Washington during the days the Civil War film was being shown. It has faced far worse economic times than the recession now apparently underway. And it has faced far deeper internal divisions than this 1990 campaign has exposed.
It faced all that -- and more -- in the Civil War. And survived.
But if survival is one theme, the other even more powerful impression left behind by Burns's selection of photographs is the terrible carnage of war. This was no hoked-up, unpersuasive "The Day After" fabrication of the look and feel of nuclear war. This was the unremittingly authentic record, in black and white, of what men can do to each other, even when fighting with weapons far less powerful than those now employed.
Never, I suspect, have millions of Americans been exposed to such a volume of unromanticized scenes of death in battle. If we did not see the shells and bullets and bayonets strike, we saw the grotesque attitudes in which death froze these men. And we saw the fatal wounds -- the shattered bones, the opened guts, the blasted faces. A single close-up of a severed forearm, the hand still clenched in a fist, lingers indelibly as a symbol of the cost of war.
The hospital scenes were, if anything, harder to watch. The eyes of the men whose wounds would soon kill them . . . the hands and arms of the surgeons, steeped in gore.
I doubt that any pacifist organization ever has had as much of an opportunity to confront this society with the reality of war as PBS provided Ken Burns in this film. And the historical narrative, the excerpted journals, left no one in doubt that, however noble the cause, thousands of men died needlessly, futilely -- victims of folly, of misjudgment, of mindless mischance.
"The Wilderness was a useless battle, fought with great loss and no result," Carl Roebling said. Of Cold Harbor, Ulysses S. Grant himself admitted, "No advantage whatever was gained, despite heavy loss."
Not even the words of Lincoln, the poet-president, or the valor of those who took up arms on both sides, could soften the visual indictment of war that we watched. "It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world," Henry Adams said of Robert E. Lee.
And another quotation that leaped from the script, unattributed: "What a terrible responsibility rests upon those who inaugurated this unholy war."
I am not a pacifist, and I do not believe that war is the greatest evil in this world. Freedom and justice are worth fighting for, for their absence not only subjugates the body, it imprisons the soul.
But at a moment when the government of the United States is quite clearly contemplating war, and when my own newspaper for two Sundays in a row has published the speculations of senior military officers of how war with Iraq could be fought and won, it is a signal service PBS and Ken Burns have done in reminding us of the reality of the concentrated acts of violence we call war.
A few voices have been raised on Capitol Hill suggesting that we think hard before we act. Veterans of past wars such as Sens. Terry Sanford of North Carolina and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska have been particularly outspoken. Not many have chosen to join them.
It may be necessary for the United States and its allies to fight a war in the Gulf. But it is nothing to undertake casually or impulsively, without a sense of foreboding at the cost.
Not after what Ken Burns has shown us.